Put your mettle to the pedal for World Stroke Day

Ariel Skelley/DigitalVision, Getty Images
(Ariel Skelley/DigitalVision, Getty Images)

For World Stroke Day on Oct. 29, strap on your helmet, hop on your bicycle and pedal like your life depends on it. Which it could — and everyone else's life could, too.

Such is the purpose behind One CycleNation. Hosted by the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association, the nationwide movement empowers anyone to strengthen their hearts and brains in a shared determination to fight and prevent strokes — which strike someone in the U.S. every 40 seconds.

"It's a giant celebration to acknowledge everyone for embracing a virtual team event," said Ben Miller, volunteer chair of One CycleNation in Denver, "to recognize folks who lead with their legs."

The event fits right into a key component for stroke prevention: exercise.

Exercise activates brain cells, encouraging them to grow and connect more efficiently. For clear health benefits, adults should get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity (or a combination of both). Two days per week of moderate- to high-intensity muscle strengthening also is recommended.

So, what could be better than being outdoors in autumnal splendor, feeling connected to stroke warriors with the same determination?

Traditionally a series of spin classes across the country, CycleNation has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by taking the annual event onto streets, sidewalks and trails. Its 2020 goal: to enlist riders to raise $1 million riding 1 million miles.

"I view it this way," said Miller, who is vice president of marketing, sales and business development for Kaiser Permanente, a sponsor and participating company for the Denver CycleNation event. "We're given one vessel, one body on this earth. Now, especially in light of everything going on with COVID, this creates a great opportunity to reassess where we are in this journey."

Stroke statistics are sobering: About 1 in 4 people will have a stroke at some point. Strokes are the No. 2 cause of death worldwide and a leading cause of disability.

Smokers, people with such health issues as diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity, and those who are physically inactive are most prone to strokes. Up to half of all adults in the U.S. have high blood pressure, which is one of the major risk factors of a stroke. Additionally, growing evidence shows that stress levels due to discrimination and reduced access to health care among the LGBT community may be contributing to stroke risk.

But up to 80% of strokes can be prevented. Here are five ways to reduce your personal risk:

Keep blood pressure in check. With your doctor's help, try for readings of 120/80 or lower.

Eat colorful fruits and vegetables. Vitamins and minerals found in these foods improve brain function and heart health. Aim for four or five servings of each every day.

Get enough sleep. Set your goal as seven to nine hours per night, which helps improve brain function. Stick with the same bedtime routine every night, and turn off screens at least a half-hour before turning out the lights.

Meditate. Studies show focusing on your breath can increase blood flow to the brain. You don't need to do this for hours on end; whenever you feel stressed, just focus on breathing slowly through your nose to the count of five, and out your nose to the count of five.

Move more. To get the recommended 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week, you can start small: A walk around the block can work wonders.

For Miller, information about prevention is especially heartening. Cardiovascular disease runs in his family. He lost his beloved grandfather to stroke. And his father-in-law had a stroke around age 70.

"To watch someone who was always strong and vibrant and see them go through the journey back to a 'normal life' has been challenging," Miller said.

There's another, essential motivation for Miller to take part in the fight against stroke: his wife and four daughters.

"I'm a big believer in casting a shadow as a leader and a participant, but also as a father," he said. "I want to show my daughters it's important to maintain as active a lifestyle as you can, make healthy choices, and be part of their grandfather's recovery."

For Miller, Oct. 29 might include a family walk together with his father-in-law. "It's a 'let's stay active together and make it a household thing' instead of a 'me' thing," he said. "This is a nice, subtle reminder on how to focus. To do it as a household is so cool, to sit down as a group and say it's something we all believe in."

Flexibility is another beauty of this year's event. It may include the word "cycle," but exercise comes in many forms.

"I don't want anyone to be intimidated by the event," Miller said. "If you see it as walking around a track or taking a family hike, that's great. There are limitless ways to get involved."

Miller views World Stroke Day as being all about camaraderie, sharing a mission and saving lives.

"It's a sense of taking care of each other," he said. "We've got each other's back."

Learn more about One CycleNation, including how to donate and participate.

A livestream on the day of the event will feature appearances by stroke survivors Michael Johnson, a U.S. Olympian, and actor Tim Omundson. It will also include head-to-head competitions as well as celebrations for riders' fundraising and distance achievements.

If you think you or someone close by might be having a stroke, remember the acronym FAST: Face drooping, Arm weakness, Speech slurred, Time to call 911.